Local Politics

Momentum building for board to address campaign flights probe

Posted July 15, 2010 1:06 p.m. EDT
Updated July 15, 2010 7:00 p.m. EDT

— State Board of Elections Chairman Larry Leake said Thursday that the board will address a controversial investigation into campaign flights by Gov. Beverly Perdue and other candidates.

Elections board staffers spent several months reviewing flights taken by Perdue and other candidates aboard donors' planes during the 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns that weren't reported. In a report released last month, chief investigator Kim Strach detailed a lack of proper documentation and reporting of flights by all candidates.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the elections board, attributed the campaigns' errors to sloppy procedures and said there was no evidence of any intentional efforts to skirt campaign finance laws. He recommended that the case be closed and the board move on to other business.

But elections board members Anita Earls and Bill Peaslee said Thursday that they want the board to sort out questions that have been raised about the report.

"I don't think the process is completed," said Earls, a Democrat.

Peaslee, a Republican, said he finds the time-line of the investigation "disturbing" and wants to know whether the probe was impeded in any way.

Leake said it was always his intention to have the board address Strach's report and would likely do so before Labor Day.

Following the release of the report, North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer alleged that Leake and Bartlett worked with the Perdue campaign to limit the scope of the investigation. He called for both to resign and said prosecutors should look at the case for possible obstruction of justice charges.

WRAL News on Wednesday obtained a series of letters between Strach and John Wallace, the attorney for Perdue's campaign, in which he questioned the credibility of her investigation.

Wallace said Strach should recuse herself from the flights probe because her husband, Phil Strach, was legal counsel for the state Republican Party. The GOP filed a complaint against Perdue's campaign last fall, which prompted the investigation.

Phil Strach has since left his position in the Republican Party.

Kim Strach said that the allegation seemed tied to her demands to review a notebook containing documentation about Perdue's campaign flights. Wallace initially balked at the demand, citing attorney-client privilege, but he later relented and showed the information to other elections board officials.

Leake acknowledged that the investigation created tension within the agency, and he denied the allegation that he tried to hinder Strach. He said he jumped in to "expedite the process" because of the growing rift between staffers and campaign officials.

Both Earls and Peaslee said Thursday that they don't believe Kim Strach's handling of the flights investigation presented a conflict of interest.

Strach has led investigations at the elections board for 10 years, including cases that eventually sent former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and ex-House Speaker Jim Black to prison on corruption charges.

A provision inserted into the state budget hours before lawmakers adjourned included funds for the board to hire a campaign finance attorney and two investigators. Bartlett said conversations have been held about Strach concentrating on campaign finance audits and compliance issues and allowing the new staff to handle some investigations.